Read the First Chapter of Madam President
Madam President | Chapter 1
She was from the South and had two years of formal schooling and wrote like a child. She married a quiet man from Washington and her baby died after three months. Her husband then died and left her with a failing jewelry company that was severely in debt. She turned the company around while taking almost no salary. She bought an electric car and was issued the first driver’s license given to a woman in the District of Columbia. She married a President who had been recently widowed. In four years, the President would have a severe stroke, and leave her to run the Unites States Government and negotiate the end of World War I.
She was our First Woman President.
1 – The Cover Up
President Woodrow Wilson lay with his mouth drooping, unconscious, having suffered a thrombosis on October 2nd 1919 that left him paralyzed on his left side and barely able to speak. The doctors believed the President’s best chance to survive was in the only known remedy for a stroke at the time; a rest cure consisting of total isolation from the world.
His second wife of four years, Edith Bolling Wilson, asked how a country could function with no Chief Executive. Dr. Dercum, the attending physician leaned over and gave Edith her charge.
“Madam, it is a grave situation, but I think you can solve it. Have everything come to you; weigh the importance of each matter: and see if it is possible by consultation with the respective heads of the Departments to solve them without the guidance of your husband.”
From here on Edith Wilson would run the White House and by proxy the country by controlling access to the President, signing documents, pushing bills through, issuing vetoes, isolating advisors, crafting State of the Union addresses, disposing or censoring correspondence, filling positions, analyzing every problem and deciding what to give to the President and what to solve by her own devices; all the while keeping the fact the country was no longer being run by President Woodrow Wilson a guarded secret.
A few guessed at the real situation. A frustrated Senator Falls from New Mexico pounded the Senatorial table when he demanded a response from the White House. “We have a petticoat government! Wilson is not acting! Mrs. Wilson is President!” Clearly some would see a power grab Edith Wilson ensured by keeping Vice President Marshall from seeing the President and preventing the Constitutional transfer of power. But Edith believed the doctors admonishment that any stress would kill her husband. From here on she would shield Woodrow Wilson from the world with one simple guiding principle in running the country; keep her husband alive.
Edith participated in the Wilson Administration in an extraordinary way. They were more like a couple today where both people are more of a team than was found in 1919. President Wilson made sure they were together constantly and valued his wife’s input and made Edith part of many of his decisions prior to his stroke. In this way he gave her hands on training for her “stewardship.”
“I tried to arrange my appointments to correspond with those of the President, so we might be free at the same times,” she would later write. Woodrow Wilson gave Edith presidential access to all his work and many times she was with him all day. As she later wrote, “Breakfast was at eight o’clock sharp. Then we both went to the study to look in “the drawer” and if nothing had blown up overnight, there was time to put signatures on papers or other official papers. These I always placed before my husband and botted and removed them as fast as possible.”
Edith’s participation in the Wilson White House allowed a woman, who just four years before was a widower living alone in Washington, the ability to deal with the demands of the United States while nursing her husband. The essential death of the President was felt from the failure of The League of Nations to get approved to the virtual standstill of foreign policy and domestic concerns. At a point, the White House simply began to cease to function
Edith Wilson had to step in and power followed. Literally we have a woman with only two years formal education making it up as she went along; approving appointments, making foreign policy and domestic policy decisions, orchestrating the cover up, and restricting access to her husband who at times was totally “gone.” When looking through the Papers of Woodrow Wilson, one is struck by how much correspondence from 1919 to 1921 was directed toward Edith. From America’s entry into the League of Nations to winding down the war to the recognition of diplomats, Edith was on the front lines.
Instead of My dear Mr. President in the Wilson Papers we now see My dear Mrs. Wilson. And these letters cover all matters of state. The correspondence of the Edith Wilson Years would fill four volumes. As she wrote to Colonel House the Presidents unofficial advisor, “My hands are so full that I neglect many things. But I feel equal to everything that comes now that I see steady progress going on.”
Americans wouldn’t see their President for five months. Appointments remained filled and correspondence piled up. Years later essential Presidential communications never opened in the White House were found in the National Archives. Like someone who can’t get to their bills, Edith had simply thrown them in a pile.
The cover up would last until our present day with historians and Edith Wilson herself taking part; her memoir written in1939 continued the cover up by calling her Presidency a “stewardship” and downplaying any significance to her role. Historians would seal the deal with many conceding Edith Wilson was almost the President but that Woodrow Wilson was still in charge. Some would say she might have been the President for six weeks, but that was all.
It is still shocking to the majority of Americans to learn that President Wilson had a massive stroke in office. But to tell people that his wife, Edith Wilson, was the acting President for almost two years is unbelievable. The motivations among historians and the people at the time is simple. If you say Edith Wilson was President from 1919 to 1921,then you diminish the impact Woodrow Wilson had on the country and his legacy.
Power is given to those who can act upon it, and President Wilson, who remained in bed only to be wheeled out for movies and some fresh air, could not act upon anything. The question then is; who was Edith Bolling Wilson? Was she a woman singularly gifted enough to run the country and nurse her husband back to health; or was she a woman doing the best she could in a world of men who saw women as little more than second citizens? Now almost a hundred years later, we ponder the very relevant impact of our First Woman President again.
But we have to go back to a train car outside of Pueblo Colorado in the Indian summer of 1919. It is here in the heat and dust on September 25th, that Edith Wilson’s Presidency began.
2 – A Bad Day
“Edith, can you come to me? I am very sick.”
A woman stood in the darkness with the desert wind blowing in the open windows. The train car shifted from side to side as she grabbed the handle to the Presidents bedroom. Somewhere outside of Pueblo, Colorado, in the stifling heat of September 14, 1919, Edith Bolling Wilson opened the door from her train compartment and found the 28th President of the United States with his forehead against a chair at 11:30 in the evening. Pressing against the cranial thump of blood gave some relief to President Wilson, but things were quickly deteriorating.
The steel Presidential car, The Mayflower, was stifling hot as Wilson moaned and inhaled the scent of smoke from forest fires they passed through earlier. The President had few remedies for the excruciating headaches of hypertension. Add to that years of campaigning for The League of Nations had left him physically exhausted. The League was already the barefoot child of the treaty and Henry Cabot Lodge and other Republicans were whipping the country into isolationist fury with their mission to destroy Wilson’s dream. Lodge saw the League as a breach of America’s sovereignty and a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, but he had another motivation for blocking ratification of The Treaty of Versailles; he loathed Woodrow Wilson.
Lodge viewed the preacher from the South as an arrogant dreamer who had no real concept of realpolitik. The Brahmin from Boston who wore spats and sported a Vandyke beard, thought Wilson inept in war and peace and it didn’t help that he had defeated his lifelong friend Teddy Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential race. It was no secret Lodge loathed President Wilson to the point Henry Adams found the Senators hatred of the president…”demented.”
President Wilson feared the defeat of The League would ensure another war. The sacrifice of millions of lives was in the balance as the “War to End All Wars,” could only be justified by The League. Without America in the new organization of world government it would be only a paper tiger. So the President had gone on the road to take his case to the American people.
But there was no Air Force One, there was only the Presidential train car, The Mayflower, basically a steel tube hauled by a steam locomotive that belched coal smoke. Edith described the the Presidential accomondations this way in her memoir: “Entering the car from the rear one came first to a sitting room, fitted with armchairs, a long couch and a folding table on which we dined. Next came my bedroom and then the Presidents, with a door connecting. Each room had a single bed and dressing table. Beyond this was a room my husband used as an office. There was placed his typewriter without which he never traveled.”
A whistle stop tour was a grueling event for a young healthy man and the sixty two year old Wilson was neither of these. They passed through the scorching temperatures of the West without the comfort of air conditioning. In the desert, Wilsons steel train car became an oven and the President hadn’t been for some time. They had been traveling for twelve days and the last two had been brutal. As Edith wrote in her Memoir later: “The weather was warm and enervating. These two days would have taxed the vitality of one who was rested and refreshed. My husband took them on top of twelve days and nights of travel.”
Hypertension and a hardening of the arteries had steadily crept up on the sixty two year old Wilson .Pressing his head against a chair was the latest self-medication technique. Many times the headaches would drive the President to darkened bedrooms where Edith would pull the curtains. There were no beta blockers with medical science still fifty years out from the Civil Wars approach of loping off gangrenous limbs and using leaches to deal with suppuration. The brain was still as foreign as Mars.
Edith immediately called Dr. Grayson. She had been married to the President for four years and had many apprehensions before she accepted Woodrow Wilsons proposal of marriage. Born in a small town in Virginia and widowed at 23, she had been an independent woman before she met the grieving President who started wooing her with Victorian love letters.
Greyson examined his patient and noticed The Presidents face was twitching and that he was gasping from an asthmatic attack. As Grayson later recorded in his diary, “The strain of the trip had taken its toll from him and he was very seriously ill. For a few minutes it looked as if he could hardly get his breath.” The headache screwed into his forehead and was getting worse. The President of the United States was suffering early symptoms of a stroke, though the worst was to come.
The doctor moved him to the “office” car which was roomier. Wilson tossed in the train car most of the night. “The Doctor and I kept the vigil, while the train dashed on and on through darkness,” Edith would later write in her memoir. “About five in the morning a blessed release came, and, sitting upright on the stiff seat, my husband went to sleep. I motioned to the Doctor to go to bed and I sat opposite scarcely breathing.”
The next morning Wilson emerged clean shaven but Grayson argued against continuing on. They had only completed 3500 miles of a 10,000 mile trip. The President pointed out his problem, “Don’t you see that if you cancel this trip, Senator Lodge and his friends will say that I am a quitter and the trip was a failure, and the Treaty will be lost.”
Grayson told the President he should, “stop now before very serious developments should occur.” He then bluntly said the tour would kill him. Edith urged her husband to cancel the rest of his speeches. When his personal Secretary Joe Tumulty came in the President admitted, “I don’t seem to realize it, but I seem to have gone to pieces. The doctor is right. I am not in a condition to go on.” He then turned and looked out the window with tears coming to his eyes. Wilson would later call it, “the greatest disappointment of his life.”
The train started back East. Edith sat up a watching her husband with the steam locomotive chugging toward Washington. The psychological shift that allowed Edith to run the United States was cast. She had married Woodrow Wilson four years before knowing her life would change forever. Now her life would change again. Edith reflected twenty years later that she, “would have to wear a mask, not only to the public, but to the one I loved best in the world; for he must never know how ill he was and I must carry on.”
Edith was devoted to the President. She rose early to help make his meals and monitored who saw him. She took long drives with Woodrow and felt this was a remedy for his exhaustion, sometimes depression, and the chronic hypertension. Edith had tried to protect her husband from stress for years. An election in 1916, a World War, then a year in Europe fighting for the League of Nations, had taken everything Wilson had.
The President believed The League would give meaning to the millions of young men who died in the hollowed out hell of trench warfare in France. At the very least he could look American mothers in the eye and say their sons helped to end war. Wilson saw American boys who came over “ as crusaders, not merely to win the war, but to win a cause,” That cause was The League of Nations, but without approval by the United States, the League would mean nothing.
The train ran back on a specially cleared track with the blinds lowered. People gathered at stations to watch the speeding Presidential Express ball though only stopping to take on water. The press was told “nervous exhaustion” was the reason for the cancellation of the speaking tour. Wilson sent a telegram from Wichita, Kansas to his daughter, Jessie Woodrow, trying to stem the alarm. “Returning to Washington. Nothing to be alarmed about. Love from all of us.” Woodrow Wilson
A news report in the Denver Post on Sept 26th ran: President is Ill and Cancels his Tour. In what would become precedent, Dr. Grayson reported physical exhaustion as the reason the Western speaking tour was cancelled. The article speculated the ordeal of the parades for the President “seemed to be most trying on his nerves,” and that “the trip had also been very tiring to Mrs. Wilson.” The press respected privacy in 1919 in a compact between the White House and the reporters who covered the President. The investigative reporter had yet to rear its head.
Edith knitted while the President tossed in the agony of hypertension in the extreme. On September 27th, Grayson issued another bulletin from the train for the press: “The presidents condition is about the same. He has had a fairly restful night.” The New York Times headline on Saturday Sept 27th announced “The President Suffers Nervous Breakdown” and connected it to an attack of influenza in Paris and caused by overwork.
Grayson requested the train run at half speed to keep from jarring the President. The train slowed to twenty five miles an hour while the President writhed from the intense cerebral pressure. When they reached Washington, the President managed to walk from the Presidential car and then was ordered to bed by Admiral Grayson. The next day he and Edith took a two hour drive in the Pierce Arrow Presidential limousine. The day was cool and autumnal and Wilson seemed to improve. But the headaches never abated and upon his return, Grayson ordered him back to bed.
The doctor then invoked several mandates that would guide Edith Wilson over the next two years. In his diary he wrote, “I took steps to put into effect the rest cure which I had planned and which I realized was the only thing that would restore him to health.” The only cure was total isolation from the pressures of his job. “…he shouldn’t be bothered with any matters of official character…it was to be a complete rest, not partial rest…and nothing was to be allowed to interfere with the Presidents restoration to health if possible.”
Any pressure on the President could now be fatal. If Edith’s husband was to survive she must insert herself between him and the United States. No cabinet meetings. No meetings of any kind. A wedge of devotion and the sustaining restorative powers of the body might save his life. But of course this was all proving to be too late for The President.
Edith Wilson started to fill in for her ailing husband. The Secretary of War, Newton Diehl Baker sent her the first official telegram. “Dear Mrs. Wilson, If anything comes to the White House in the next few days which you think I could do and save the President having to give it attention…feel free to send it to me.” Edith then stepped in by entertaining ten journalists from the Western Tour. Her first duty of state was when Sir William Wiseman of the British Government said he had an urgent message for the President. Edith met him at eleven o’clock and said she would get back to him.
Edith mentioned the diplomats message, but the President waved it off. Sir William Wiseman received no response . Edith would write in her memoir, “This was the only instance that I recalled having acted as intermediary between my husband and another on an official matter.” The real Edith starts to bleed through her prose when she comments, about Wiseman; “I had never liked this plausible little man.” Edith was liable to make snap judgements that dictated who got an answer and who didn’t. Sir William Wiseman would never get one.
On the third day, Wilson improved and even played some pool. He was eating more and taking his daily drives. But nothing could alleviate the lurking thrombosis caused by pressured arteries Medical science had years earlier told another future President he would have to live the life of a recluse because of an abnormality in his heart. Teddy Roosevelt would become the most vigorous President America ever had. He did not take the doctor’s advice.
The New York Times reported on September 30th, “President Wilson seems to be getting better…at 10:30 tonight Real Admiral Grayson issued the following bulletin. The President spent a fairly comfortable day and is improving.” The Times then reported on Oct 1, “President is again Jaded after Another Restless Night.,,.”
On the night of October 2nd, Edith looked into the Presidents bedroom and found her husband sleeping soundly. She stopped back a half hour later and found him sitting up in his bed. “I have no feeling in that hand,” he murmured, gesturing to his left. Edith sat on the bed and started rubbing the President’s hand, then helped him to the bathroom.
“I’m going to call Dr. Grayson,” she told him and left her husband in the bathroom.
Edith hurried down to the White House Switchboard and told the operator to contact Dr. Grayson immediately. The thump was a body falling to the floor toward the Presidents living quarters.
Edith ran back upstairs and found the President of the United States bleeding and unconscious on the hard white tiles of the bathroom floor.
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